Food Feature: Hawaiian hideaway

Critic forgoes ritzy resorts and fake luaus at simple South Kona hotel

From my private lanai, 1,400 feet above the dappled Pacific, I look down across macadamia-nut groves and coffee plantations to the pali, or sheer cliff, that towers over palm-fringed Kealakekua Bay. A fat red sun is about to kiss the hazy horizon good day. Closer in, sleek fishing boats and rainbow-sailed catamarans plow clean wakes as they haul up and down the mostly undeveloped South Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.

My hideaway, the thoroughly old-fashioned Manago Hotel, looks and feels like a 1940s B-movie and is priced accordingly. Western-style rooms — twin beds, desk-dresser combo, table and chairs, minuscule closet, polyester carpet, ceiling fan and private bath — run $42-$47 per night, with discounts by the week and month. Japanese tatami rooms also are an option. Rooms with community baths and restricted views cost less. All are among the best values in Hawaii.

Though prices are low, the Manago's mattresses and futons are decent and the window screens new. And there is no extra charge for the blissful lack of in-room television sets and phones, air conditioning, Internet connections and mini-bars.

From out on Mamalahoa Highway, the round-the-island perimeter, the Manago looks more like a cheap, frame warehouse than a hostelry. But looks aren't everything. The place draws academics, backpacking Aussies, touring cyclists, Europeans on a budget — almost everybody except the tour bus and shore excursion crowds.

Founded in 1917 as a way station for salesmen and plantation workers, the hotel is operated by the son and grandson of the original Managos. Located in Captain Cook, an old coffee plantation town on the road south of Kailua-Kona (the international airport is just north of that), the hotel has a television room for guests and neighborhood kids, a message board and a pay phone on each floor.

At sunset, I'll slip into an aloha shirt, clean shorts and reef-walker thongs, check out the koi ponds and orchid garden behind the hotel's new wing, where my room is located, and claim my table-for-one in the air-cooled, screened dining room. For Asian-American locals, the hotel's dining room is a culinary magnet, a byword for home-style cooking.

On my first night back, I usually feast on the specialty plate: grilled-to-order teriyaki pork chops, the best macaroni salad in the islands, green vegetable and steamed rice. Dinner costs — hold onto your hula skirt — $8. I tip extra to cover the staffers' sweet smiles and speedy service.

Open daily except Monday, the shabby-chic dining room also serves lunch and dynamite breakfasts (papaya, tropical juice, pancakes, fried Spam and a bottomless mug of Royal Kona blended coffee sets a visitor back about $4).

I love lingering over coffee, watching the retro-hippie kids with long hair, outlandish tattoos and kids of their own, the Japanese-American grandparents minding babies, the more-or-less regular travelers who don't blink at the hand-wash basin by the dining room door. Old hands appreciate the chalkboard menus and homey decorations (a geisha doll in a glass case, a hula Santa, sake cups and Japanese vases). We thank our luck that non-chain oddities exist in what's becoming a thoroughly name-brand state.

I spend my mornings snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay, a marine sanctuary and historic preserve. Capt. Cook, discoverer of the islands, was beaten to death there, and later eaten. A marble obelisk on the shore marks the nearby underwater site. One of the few protected underwater parks in the islands, a shallow zone near the monument is perfect for snorkelers and learner-permit scuba divers. Since the monument is accessible only by boat or a two-hour hike down the pali, a group cruise makes sense.

The Fair Wind II, a 60-foot motorized catamaran based at Keauhau Pier, just a short drive downhill from the Manago, charges $40-$70 for a half-day cruise and scuba, snorkel or snuba (basically an air hose from the boat) adventure, including meals and beverages. Beer and mixed drinks are available. Fins, masks, snorkel tubes, inner tubes and floats, and view boxes (but not towels) are furnished, along with basic instructions by a large, upbeat staff, all with world-class tans. Breakfast and lunch buffets are standard Valley Girl healthful: cut-up organic fruit, fruit punch, grilled cheeseburgers and garden burgers, macadamia nut chocolate chip cookies and coffee from the boat-owners' own groves.

To resist post-cruise napping, I stop by Bad Ass Coffee Company in Kealakekua town for hand-roasted, dark, 100 percent Kona coffee, simply the best I've ever had. Bad Ass Coffee, like several other boutique brands that are grown, roasted and sold in the neighborhood, is something else — the Bordeaux of coffees, the beluga, the best. It isn't cheap, either. Small, intensely flavored peaberry beans go for $28-$30 a pound. Bad Ass beans are batch roasted in a tumble drum the size of a duffel bag. Ground and brewed the day they are roasted, the beans produce a winey, complex beverage with layers of flavors. Cappuccinos, espressos, mochas and the like are brewed to order.

So what else is needed besides sun block and brewable souvenirs? A rental car. Fortunately they're plentiful at both Big Island airports. Reserving ahead is a good idea.

Manago Hotel, 808-323-2642; Fair Wind Cruises, Keauhou Pier, 800-677-9461; Bad Ass Coffee Co., 808-322-9196.??

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